And they provoked Him through their acts, and the scourge broke out among them (Psalms 106:29).
“Rabbi Shemu’el son of Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: Punishment comes upon the world only when there are wicked in the world, and it begins only with the righteous first, as is said: Should a fire go forth and catch in thorns (Exodus 22:5). When does fire break out? When thorns are found. And it begins only with the righteous first, as is said: or standing grain… be consumed, [he who set the fire shall surely pay] (ibid.). It does not say and consumes standing grain, but standing grain… be consumed—it already was consumed.
Rabbi Yosef taught: What is And as for you, none of you shall go out from the entrance of his house till morning (Exodus 12:22)? Once permission has been granted to the Destroyer, he does not distinguish between righteous and wicked, as is said, [Thus said YHWH: Here I am against you,] and I will take out My sword from its sheath and cut off from you the righteous and the wicked (Ezekiel 21:8)….
Our Rabbis taught: A plague in town? Keep your feet indoors, as it says, And as for you, none of you shall go out from the entrance of his house till morning, and it says, Go, my people, come into your chambers and shut your doors behind you. [Hide but a moment until the wrath passes. For YHWH is about to come out from His place to punish the crime of the dwellers on earth, and the earth shall lay bare its bloodguilt and no longer cover its slain] (Isaiah 26:20) [cf. Zohar 1:183a ad loc.]. And it says: Outside will the sword bereave and within chambers—terror. [Both youth and virgin, suckling and gray-haired man] (Deuteronomy 32:25). Why? Lest you say these words [apply] only to the night, but not to the day.
Come and hear: Go, my people, come into your chambers and shut your doors behind you. And should you say this matter [applies only] where there is no such terror within, whereas where there is terror within it is much better to go out and sit among people in one company, again come and hear: Outside will the sword bereave and within chambers—terror—that [even where] the terror is within the sword will destroy [more] outside.
In the time of a plague Rava used to keep the windows shut, as is written, For death has come up through our windows, [has entered our citadels, to cut off the babe from the street, the young man from the squares] (Jeremiah 9:20).
Our Rabbis taught: A plague in town? One should not walk in the middle of the road, because the Angel of Death walks there—for as soon as permission has been granted him, he strides brazenly. But when there is peace in the town, one should not walk at the sides of the road, for since he has no permission he slinks along in hiding.
Our Rabbis taught: A plague in town? Nobody should enter the synagogue alone, as the Angel of Death keeps his tools there. However, this is the case only where no children are being taught there or where ten [men] do not pray there [together].
Our Rabbis taught: When dogs howl the Angel of Death has come to town. But when dogs frolic Elijah the prophet has come to town—only if there is no female among them” (BT Bava Qamma 60a–b, see Mekhilta, Pisḥa 11; Zohar 1:63a, 68a–b, 69a, 107b, 113a, 182b, 197b; 2:196a, 227a).
“Our Rabbis taught: There are four signs: A sign of transgression is swelling [due to the build-up of excess fluid in the body’s tissues i.e., edema]; a sign of baseless hatred is jaundice; a sign of arrogance is poverty [cf. BT Qiddushin 49b]; a sign of לָשׁוֹן הָרַע (lashon ha-ra), the evil tongue [i.e., slander], is diphtheria.
Our Rabbis taught: Diphtheria comes to the world on account of [neglect of] tithes. Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Yose said: On account of the evil tongue [cf. BT Yevamot 62b]. Rava, some say Rabbi Yehoshu’a son of Levi, said: What verse [teaches this]? But the king will rejoice in God, all who swear by him will revel, for the mouth of the liars יִסָּכֵר (yissakher), is muzzled [playing on אַסְכָּרָה (askarah), diphtheria, an acute bacterial disease that can infect the body in the tonsils, nose, or throat] (Psalms 63:12).
It was asked by them: Does Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Yose say, [Only] on account of slander, or perhaps on account of slander too?
Come and hear: For when our Rabbis entered the ‘vineyard’ in Yavneh [the famous town north west of Jerusalem, the seat of the Sanhedrin and Rabbi Yoḥanan son of Zakkai’s academy after the destruction of the Temple. Sittings were held in a ‘vineyard,’ i.e., members sat in rows similar to vines in a vineyard], Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Shim’on [son of Yoḥai] were present, and this question was raised before them: why does this affliction start in the bowels and end in the throat? Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Ila’i, the first speaker on all occasions answered and said: Though the kidneys counsel, the heart gives understanding [kidneys were thought to be the seat of conscience, see Psalms 16:7; the heart is imagined as the seat of understanding, see Isaiah 6:10], and the tongue cuts [a word, yet] the mouth finishes [it].
Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Yose answered and said: Because they eat impure food with it. ‘Impure food!’ does it enter your mind? Rather [say] because they eat unfit food [i.e., which was not tithed]. Rabbi Shim’on answered and said: As a punishment for the neglect of study. They said to him. Let women prove it! [since they are not obligated to study (see BT Qiddushin 29b), and yet suffer from diphtheria (cf. M Sotah 3:4)]. That is because they restrain their husbands [from study]. Let Gentiles prove it! [since they are not obligated to study Torah, and are yet subject to it]. That is because they restrain Israel. Let children prove it! That is because they make their fathers to neglect [study]. Then let school children prove it! There it is as Rabbi Guryon. For Rabbi Guryon, some say Rav Yosef son of Rabbi Shemaya, said: When there are righteous men in the generation, the righteous are seized [by death] for the [sins of the] generation; when there are no righteous in a generation, school children are seized for the generation. Rabbi Yitsḥaq son of Ze’iri, some say Rabbi Shim’on son of Nezira, said: Which verse [teaches this]? If you do not know, O fairest of women, go out in the tracks of the sheep [and graze your goats by the shepherd’s מִשְׁכְּנוֹת (mishkenot), shelters (Song of Songs 1:8) and we interpret this as [referring to] the goats which are הַמְמוּשְׁכָּנִין (ha-memushkanin), taken as collateral, for the [debts of the] shepherds. Thus this proves that he said on account of slander too. This proves it” (BT Shabbat 33a–b).
“Rabbi Aḥa traveled to כְפַר טַרְשָׁא (Kefar Tarsha), Clod Village; he arrived at his inn. All the town’s residences spoke in hushed tones about him, saying, ‘A great man has arrived here. Let us go to him. They went to him. They said to him, ‘Is the master’s heart anguished by the destruction?’ He said to them, ‘What do you mean?’ They said to him, ‘For seven days, a plague has been hovering over the town. Each day it grows stronger and does not desist.’ He said to them, ‘Let us go to the synagogue and implore mercy from the blessed Holy One.’
While they were walking, [some people] arrived and said, ‘So-and-so and so-and-so have died, and so-and-so and so-and-so are about to die.’ Rabbi Aḥa said to them, ‘Now is not the time to stand by—the hour is pressing! Rather, set aside forty of the most righteous people, in four groups of ten, and I with you; ten for one corner of the town, ten for another corner of the town, so on for the four corners of the town; and recite with soulful devotion the passages of the aromatic incense that the blessed Holy One gave Moses, accompanied by the passages of the sacrifices [cf. BT Shabbat 89a].’
They did so three times—and passed through all four directions of the town, reciting accordingly [cf. Zohar 2:219a: It is forbidden to burn incense anywhere else except in the fire-pan (of the Temple)]. Afterward, he said to them, ‘Let us go to those verging on death. Set aside [other righteous people] for their houses and let them recite in a similar fashion. When you finish, recite these verses loudly three times: Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take the fire-pan and place fire upon it…’ (Numbers 17:11); Aaron took… (ibid., 12); He stood between the dead… (ibid., 13).’
They did so and the plagued ceased. They heard a voice saying, ‘Secret striker, primal striker, wait on high; the judgment of heaven does not hover here, for they know how to nullify it.’
Rabbi Aḥa’s heart was faint. He fell asleep. He heard that they were telling him, ‘Just as you accomplished that, accomplish this! Go and tell them to return in teshuvah, for they are wicked before Me.’
He arose and returned them in complete teshuvah, and they accepted upon themselves never to desist from Torah; and they changed the name of the city to מָאתָא מַחְסֵיָא (Mata Meḥseya), Town of Compassion [cf. BT Ketubbot 4a; Horayot 12a; Zohar 1:72a, 94b]” (Zohar 1:100b–101b, Midrash ha-Ne’lam).
“Whoever is careless over washing hands is uprooted from the world” (BT Sotah 4b).